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2017.09.12 - Baths in the good old days

Baths in the good old days

Having fun, washing their body and healing. These were the three main reasons why people used to go to a bath – and they still are, but these days having a good time is becoming more important than the other two. It is worth taking the time and looking back on how we got here. How did the middle class spend their free time in the good old days in the pools of the growing number of baths? In what ways was this period different from today’s rapidly developing bathing culture?   

The first baths had appeared in the Carpathian Basin during Roman times, but the real golden age of bathing culture started in the 19th century. Many baths were built for the representatives of the upper and middle classes already before the Revolution of 1848, and the trend continued after these turbulent years of Hungary’s history. Buziásfürdő, Borszék, Herkulesfürdő, Balatonfüred, Karlsbad, Hévíz, Bártfa. These were the most famous spa towns in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but none of them represented the level of the famous baths of Budapest. Their popularity kept growing, but this process came to a halt when the railway to the Adriatic Sea was built and the aristocrats started visiting Abbazia (the city is now called Opatija) instead.    

In accordance with the various layers of society, there were different baths for the aristocrats, the middle class and for the relatively poor citizens. It is needless to say that everyone wanted to visit the baths frequented by those richer than them, or at least they copied their habits. Still, we can say that the driving force of this segment of culture was the middle class and those who wished to belong there. It was the growing number of middle class citizens, whose financial and cultural background was strengthening, who made the many spa towns of Austria-Hungary flourish.     

Bártfa fürdő

Back in those days the main reasons for going to a bath were relaxing and restoring one’s health. At the beginning of the season, generally in early June people on the way to recovery turned up at spa towns, they checked in with the doctor – each 1st class bath was obliged to employ a doctor, in line with the regulation of the local council. As the next step each guest had to pay a fee, from which the spa town maintained the bath, and after this their name was put on a list, which the bath had published every year in the form of a newspaper because the name of a famous person on this list was the best advertisement possible. It was exactly because of this that popular figures were exempt from paying the fee. In 1875 the poet János Arany had this privilege in Karlsbad; he gave the money that he had saved thanks to this gesture to charity.      

Császár fürdő Császár Bath in Budapest in 1870

Once the administrative formalities were completed, the treatment could start. In addition to taking various types of healing baths, the doctor also prescribed so-called drinking cures. Yes, the regular consumption of medicinal water was just as much part of the healing process as plunging into the pool. The priority was the medical treatment and having fun only came second. In those days the ‘swimming pool’ wasn’t full of children sliding down the water slide screaming: what we could see in the beautiful parks of spa towns were middle class women and men walking towards the bath, having conversations in a low voice and politely saying hello to the people they know. Of course we don’t mean to say that life in a spa town was nothing else but spending time in a solemn fashion. People were socialising, went bowling, played billiards, formed clubs within the framework of which they organised balls, raffles, musical concerts and excursions. The famous Anna Ball of Balatonfüred also started this way.        

Very often the actual bathing took place in private tubs. There were several dozen small private rooms waiting for wealthy patients in a bath, where they could enjoy the beneficial effects of hot or lukewarm water in an environment similar to today’s bathrooms. Even in the shared pools, it was unimaginable for men and women taking a bath together. Separate sections were created for men and women, and the Bathing Rules and Regulations precisely specified how close a person was allowed to go to the place dedicated to the representatives of the opposite sex. It was forbidden to splash the water, to jump into the water and to spit (!) – as you can see, the bath did have a quiet and relaxed atmosphere back then.   

This was also the period when the revolutionary development of swimwear took place. Women’s bathing suits changed probably even more than men’s. Because of moral principles these outfits covered the whole body, and they were completely unsuitable for swimming – although this wasn’t a big problem as back in those days few people could swim. With the development of body culture and the progress made in the emancipation of women, women’s swimsuits became smaller, and after a couple of scandals the world reached a stage by the middle of the 20th century where the bikini was born and anyone could go to the swimming pool or the beach, where the usual behaviour wasn’t low-voiced conversations and polite ‘hellos’ any more.